Why Do We Meditate?

Basically everyone who tries to meditate for the first time thinks they are uniquely bad at it. 

“You don’t get it. When I try to do it I catch myself thinking the whole time.” 

Yes, of course you do! That’s what brains do. It’s so normal to find the early days of a meditation practice frustrating.

But then occasionally something cool happens. I remember relatively early in my practice I was concentrating on a candle flame’s flicker in front of me. I’ve since learned that when people have trippy experiences, it’s often with concentration practices, where you focus all your attention on one thing (your breath at your nostrils, an image, a sound). 

It’s hard for me to find language for what happened. It was like the whole world got as small as that tiny gentle candle flame. Then complete calm washed over me. Then bliss. A rocking rhythm moved through me. A buzzing ran through my body. I felt high. I felt connected to everything in the whole world. As a confused atheist at the time, I felt God? I don’t know. 

Well I can assure you afterwards I felt very self-congratulatory about the whole thing. I’ve done it! I’ve figured it out! I’m clearly almost enlightened!

I’m making light, but it was actually a profound experience for me. Afterwards, I spent a lot of effort trying to repeat it. It was a very pleasant experience, don’t get me wrong. But I was focused on the wrong thing.

I heard a lecture from the famed meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg years later. She conveyed something along the lines of this. We try to judge the value or “success” of our meditations by how we feel when we are meditating. A meditation where we are calm and feel pleasant sensations is a “good” one. A meditation where we are distracted, agitated, or in physical discomfort is a “bad” one. We’re focusing on the wrong thing. We need to meditate on a regular basis for a week or a month or a year, observing changes in our life. It’s not about the fifteen minutes you’re sitting and breathing. It’s about the other 23.5 hours of the day. Are you more aware of your thoughts? Are you kinder to yourself? Are you more in touch with your feelings? Are you less reactive? 

Meditation is practice for life. Everything that we experience in meditation we also experience in life, and formal meditation invites us to practice observing what arises, being with it, and meeting it with kindness.